On the eleventh floor of Sunway University, a big yellow retriever is playing football with a handful of people. It’s a common enough pastime but some of the participants are blind. They’re playing with Lashawn, a three-year-old guide dog from China. He’s a big boy with laughing brown eyes and a waving tail that says welcome. He’s also wearing a shirt that announces his name and his job.
“I lost my sight to glaucoma in 2007.” Stevens Chan Kum Fai walks through the room and almost falls over a low table that someone has moved from its usual place. When he turns round again, he narrowly misses hitting the corner of a desk.
This is what it’s like to be blind. You live permanently in the dark. In order to move even a single step, you have to sweep the area in front of you.
It’s not just about avoiding tables, chairs, open drains, steps and traffic; if you’ve walked across an uneven floor that’s been carpeted, you’ll have stumbled – or if you’re unlucky, you’ll have fallen or twisted an ankle.
That’s what life for Chan is like, all day, every day.
As I step forward to offer and my elbow for him to hold on to, Lashawn pops up, and puts his head under Chan hand. Lashawn helps Chan across the room, avoiding other obstacles neatly and efficiently. I’ve seen plenty of guide dogs leading their human partners in foreign cities but once again it comes to me that watching this partnership is like watching a miracle in action.
Chan was an ordinary businessman, but in 2002 he discovered he had glaucoma. Despite nine eye surgeries, he gradually lost all of his vision. By 2007, he had become totally blind.
“It was hard when I first lost my sight,” Chan shares, “because I lost my independence. I couldn’t leave my home unless I had my wife Kay with me. I had a cane but it’s difficult to get around, especially with traffic. A busy place like a market was impossible because there’s too much going on.”
For Chan, hope came when Kay came across a Japanese documentary about guide dogs. In the programme, they heard of specially trained service dogs guiding their humans safely through traffic and other potentially lethal situations.
“I could see the advantages straightaway,” Chan said. “A dog would mean freedom and a return to independence and dignity.”
There was, however, a problem.
“I was bitten by a rabid dog when I was in kindy, and ever since then, I wasn’t just scared of dogs – I was petrified!” Chan laughs. “Even thinking about being in the same room with a dog would bring me out in a sweat!”
However, Chan was so desperate for change that he decided to deal with his fears. That’s when another problem came up: There were no guide dogs in Malaysia.
“I asked charities, government departments and everyone else I could think of,” Chan asked, “and they said it’s not the training that’s a problem, or getting dogs, it’s the practical issues. They said that with Malaysia being a Muslim-majority country, I could have a guide dog but I couldn’t go out in public!”
Chan was unable to get a dog from the United States, Britain or Australia because organisations there were aware of the issues and wouldn’t send a dog to Malaysia.
“It takes a lot of time and effort to train service dogs,” Chan says, “and there aren’t enough to go around. So to give me one, where the dog might not be used, well, you can see why they said no.”
Reaching out, Chan was put in touch with the Nanjing Police Dog Academy. To his joy, they agreed to take a chance.
For Chan, the first obstacle was to get over his fear of dogs. “I flew over in late March last year, and was paired with Lashawn.”
At the mention of his name, the big dog sits up and gives his dad a nudge and a lick. When Chan laughs, Lashawn laughs too, panting happily with a wide open mouth. Clearly, he and Chan are firm friends.
“It took me a month,” Chan admits. “I was terrified at first of being in the same room as Lashawn but he won me over.”
Even then, being comfortable together was only a first step. Chan had to learn to take care of Lashawn and more importantly, to trust him.
“When it was me bathing him, it was OK,” Chan said, “because it was me being in charge. But when we went out and I realised I had to put my trust totally in Lashawn, well, that was different.”
In the end, however, Chan learned to trust Lashawn and the two ended up taking the bus and then traversing the Nanjing market without a single bump or problem.
“It was fantastic, that sense of freedom,” Chan enthuses.
But when the two came home, the newfound independence came crashing down.
“I was kicked out of shopping malls, refused entry to public transport and even private vehicles like taxis often said no,” Chan says. “The funny thing is that the government was one of the first signatories to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and Optional Protocol in 2007. But when the Persons with Disability Act 2008 was passed, there’s no mention of guide dogs. They say that in principle they’re all for it, but when you try and put it into practice, you’re almost always refused.”
The issue, Chan thinks, is that people have a mindset that says dogs are pets. However, they have learned to accept that police dogs are an exception so in theory, it should be a logical extension to see Lashawn and his colleagues in the same light.
“When I’m out with Lashawn, he isn’t a dog; he is my eyes,” Chan says. “By not allowing me the use of him, I am helpless.”
Many of us would look at this situation and give up in despair but Chan is made of sterner stuff.
Today he runs a social enterprise, Dialogue in the Dark Malaysia, an experience centre in Sunway University that allows students and the general public to discover for themselves what it is like to be blind. It helps raise funds and in addition, Lashawn has become an ambassador for raising public awareness about guide dogs.
“When people see me out with Lashawn, they begin to understand how it works,” Chan says. “It starts a dialogue on what it’s like to be blind and how guide dogs help the blind achieve independence.”
Chan finds that while officials worry what Malaysians might think, the general public is very often supportive.
“I’ve had all sorts of people come over and say they support having guide dogs out in public, from old Malay ladies to young Indian men.
“People who are frightened don’t approach me and of course Lashawn is working so he’s got his harness on. There is no contact unless you specifically come over to say hello.”
A glimmer of hope is that some places are becoming guide dog-friendly. “I can go to Jaya One by myself and through Sunway Pyramid and Sunway University if I’m escorted.”
Some other public places have official notices saying that they’re guide dog-friendly but Chan worries that if he tested this, it’s the security guards who will not be aware of this and throw him out. This is understandably humiliating and stressful.
Clearly, this is an issue that needs public debate. If we accept that dogs like Lashawn are not pets, but vehicles who gift their owners with independence and dignity, then we have to let mall owners, transport companies and others know of our feelings so that new guidelines can be put into place and followed. The alternative is to maintain the status quo – and that condemns the Chan of this world to living lives of almost complete dependence.
I know what I would like to see: Lashawn and his peers, out and about, doing their job.
Quick facts about guide dogs
The first systematic training schools were set up in Germany after World War I, when thousands of soldiers who had been blinded returned home.
Any intelligent dog can be trained to be a guide dog but the most common breeds are Labradors, Retrievers and German Shepherds. Labrador Retriever crossbreeds are most popular because they are brainy and have a lovely temper and easy-to-maintain coats.
How do the blind manage dog pooh? These service dogs are trained to go potty on command. Also, they wear a special tube-like gadget under the tail so the owner can easily dispose of the mess. It’s easier and neater than the usual “poop scoop” method!
You can see Lashawn and his dad on Facebook at facebook.com/DogsForSight.
What do you think? Should we maintain the status quo, or allow the blind and their guide dogs to move about freely in public places and on public transportation? Write in to firstname.lastname@example.org with the topic ‘Guide dogs in public places’ in the subject field.